Sunday, May 30, 2010

A festival's fond farewell

by Francis Church
guest writer

The Hampden-Sydney Music Festival played its final notes this weekend. As always, they were high notes.

When the festival was started 29 years ago, in August of 1982, it seemed a formula for success: the lovely ambiance of Hampden-Sydney College in Prince Edward County; the enthusiasm of its co-founders, James Kidd of the college faculty and Ethan Sloane from Boston University, its artistic director; and the ideal medium of chamber music.

And a success it became, especially after the move from hot and humid College Church to the friendlier confines of the spanking new Crawley Forum. Sloane lined up consistently fine artists, many of them young and rising stars from the musical world. Kidd offered boundless enthusiasm in introducing the concerts each year, as well as providing splendid notes on the keyboard.

Along the way, they inaugurated a fellows program that introduced the likes of eighth blackbird, the Grammy Award-winning ensemble now in residence at the University of Richmond. Adult amateurs were invited to bring along their instruments, which they played between concerts, often in the company of the fellows.

One could sense trouble when, several years ago, the college withdrew support for the fellows program. And last year, when Kidd retired from the college faculty, the festival's fate was sealed.

This weekend's concerts and artists were typical of the festival at its best. The common chain was pianist Lydia Artymiw, who has emerged as one of the top chamber players on today's music scene. There was Erin Keefe, a young violinist about whom you are certain to hear more in the second decade of the 21st century. For maturity, there was Marc Johnson, whose Stradivarius cello added mellowness to the performances.

Last, Sloane was in top form in the Beethoven and Brahms trios for clarinet, cello and piano, which opened each concert. These masterpieces have become staples on festival programs.

An added note: Those who attended the first weekend concerts agreed that Sloane achieved his finest moments in the Mozart Quintet in A major for clarinet and strings. His collaborators: the Daedalus String Quartet, whose contributions also included quartets by Mozart and Beethoven.

Vying for honors as highlights of the closing weekend were Artymiw's account of three movements from Olivier Messiaen's deeply religious "Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jesus" and Keefe's and Johnson's reading of Zoltan Kodály's Duo for violin and cello.

The Messiaen mixes crashing chords with depictions of bird calls (a favorite of the composer), moments of heartfelt meditation and often times premonitions of Jesus' death on the cross, even though the work is all about his birth.

The Kodály is filled with many elements of Hungarian folk music, especially driving rhythm. Over all it wows the ears with technical display that both artists exploited to the fullest.

What a contrast to these works were Brahms' Piano Trio in C major and Schumann's Piano Trio No. 2. The latter is rarely played, perhaps because of its rambling nature and the daring harmonies which seem right out of the 20th century instead of 1847, the year of its birth. The players evoked tonal warmth in both.

Music lovers in Central Virginia certainly shall miss the Hampden-Sydney Music Festival. It has had quality written over all of it, from start to finish. An empty spot has been left in this listener's heart by the festival's demise.

Francis Church, who was music critic of The Richmond News Leader, is a cellist active in chamber and orchestral performance.